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A Brief Introduction to the Religions 
Represented on the Tolerance Homepage

By Vaughan McTernan, Ph.D., Abdul Baten Pathan, Ph.D. & Evelyn Hayden

An Agnostic believes that the evidence for or against the existence of god is inconclusive; the burden of proof rests on those who make positive claims in either direction. Agnosticism abides by the Humanist philosophy which stresses the inherent dignity and worth of each person, concern for the interests and welfare of human beings, and asserts that every individual has the capacity for self-actualization without the use of supernaturalism.

Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha who lived in India from about 563 to 483 BCE (or BC). The Buddha was a man who taught people about why life involves suffering and dissatisfaction and how to eliminate them. His teachings begin with The Four Noble Truths and The Eight Fold Path which teach how to minimize suffering and attain inner peace, also called enlightenment.

The Four Noble Truths are that:
1. All life involves suffering and dissatisfaction.
2. Suffering and dissatisfaction originate in our desires and in our inability to recognize that all things are impermanent.
3. Suffering can cease – there is a state of being in which there is no suffering. This is Enlightenment or Nirvana.
4. There is a way to achieve this state of being. (And that is to follow the Dharma or teachings of the Buddha)

Achieving Enlightenment begins with following The Eight Fold Path which is:
1. Right Understanding: seeing through the illusions of life, such as that fame will bring you happiness.
2. Right Thought or Motives: not being self-centered, not fearing what others think of us, doing things for others that are not for self-benefit, and not expecting a return of benefit.
3. Right Speech: no vain talk, lying, gossip or tale-bearing and no harsh words. Use communication for the good.
4. Right Action: moral conduct, base actions on right understanding. This includes the Five Lay Precepts:

  • Avoid killing
  • Avoid lying
  • Avoid stealing
  • Avoid intoxication
  • Avoid misuse of sexuality

5. Right Livelihood: One’s job should not harm others or disrupt social harmony.
6. Right Effort: Continually striving to act rightly
7. Right Mindfulness: Be aware of your state of mind in every moment. Be self-aware, understand your motives, don’t let your ego take over.
8. Right Meditation: Use meditation to quiet and discipline the mind

These ways of acting and thinking center around the goals of seeing life objectively, living kindly and ethically, and cultivating inner peace through discipline and meditation.Buddhism incorporates ideas of karma and reincarnation. Contrary to popular western ideas of reincarnation, as mentioned above in regard to Hinduism, in Asian religions continual reincarnation is not desirable and a person seeks to be liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.

After the time of the Buddha, three main branches of Buddhism developed: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Theravada is closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. It centers around the monastic life and the monks’ pursuit of nirvana through mental and physical discipline. Mahayana Buddhism is divided into many branches including Zen, Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren and Pureland. In Mahayana, having compassion for others is central to turning the focus away from the self and attaining enlightenment. Vajrayana Buddhism is associated with Tibetan Buddhism. There are three main levels of working toward enlightenment. The first is quieting the mind and relinquishing attachments. The second is training to be loving and compassionate and taking vows to help do this. The third is the most advanced and involves rigorous study, meditation practices and vows.

Christianity developed among the Hebrew people in Israel at a time of political turmoil. Israel was under Roman rule and religious factions had developed in Judaism. The Jewish people expected a religious political leader, a Messiah, to deliver them from foreign rule. In about 23 CE (or AD) Jesus, a Jewish man who was learned in Jewish law and scripture, began a spiritual ministry. He taught about the Kingdom of God and called upon his followers to love God and other people. He urged compassion and forgiveness, non-violence, and help for the poor and the oppressed. As many prophets before him had done, he called upon the Jewish people to renew their covenant with God with an emphasis on faith and righteousness as the best way to be in relationship with God. He stated that to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself were the greatest commandments in Judaism, and all the other commandments were based upon those two.

Jesus gathered disciples around him who helped with his ministry. These disciples began to consider Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, who would usher in the Kingdom of God. The Jewish authorities and the chief priests, the Pharisees, saw Jesus as a political and religious threat, and so they arranged to have Jesus crucified. According to Scripture, three days after Jesus had died on the cross, his followers found his tomb empty. His disciples then experienced the living presence of Jesus and believed that he was resurrected from the dead by God. They believed he was the Son of God, sent by God to bring humanity back into close relationship with God – i. e. to redeem humanity from sinfulness.

The story of Jesus’ life and ministry and the ministry of the disciples and the Apostle Paul is recorded in The New Testament. The Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as The Old Testament, is combined with The New Testament to form the Christian Bible. The Bible is the sacred scripture of Christianity.  Many centuries of debate took place before Christian doctrine was worked out. Various councils produced the central creeds of the faith. The Holy Trinity is the belief that God, although one, is three "persons" or aspects: God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Christians believe in life after death, promised when Jesus was raised from the dead.

As Christianity developed, divisions arose. Eventually, in 1054 CE the western church based in Rome split from the eastern church based in Constantinople. The Eastern Orthodox Church then developed regionally into Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and others. The Roman Catholic Church dominated western Europe until the 1500s when the Protestant Reformation began. Reformation churches split from Catholicism forming various different denominations such as Lutheran and Presbyterian as well as the Anglican Church. Today there are many Protestant denominations as well as independent Christian churches not associated with any particular denomination.

Hinduism is a group of different religious traditions that developed in India beginning over 4,000 years ago. The variety of beliefs indicates their ancient and diverse origins. Many of these religious traditions honor the ancient scriptures called Vedas which were written down beginning in about 1500 BCE (or BC), but which many Hindus believe were heard thousands of years before that. One of these, The Upanishads, records insights into external and internal spiritual reality called Brahman and Atman. Brahman is the one essence that makes up all of reality. Everything is ultimately one thing and that is Brahman. Atman is what the Brahman within human beings is called. It is the innermost spirit of all people. In Hinduism, there are many Gods and Goddesses, that most Hindus believe are the one ultimate reality, Brahman, manifested in different forms. Vedic religion honors Gods and Goddesses with specific rituals and sacrifices. The Vedas established the priestly or Brahmin caste to perform these functions, as well as establishing the rest of the caste system. Beginning around 300 BCE, other sacred texts, manuals and epics were written which are also formative of Hindu beliefs.

The majority of Hindus follow the path of devotion to one or more Gods and Goddesses. These deities represent the male Perusa or spirit and the female Sakti or energy that combine to make up everything in the cosmos. Some deities are androgynous to represent this combination. Rituals honoring them are performed daily. Karma and reincarnation are central to Hindu views of morality, society and the way the universe works. The laws of karma determine that the consequences of one’s actions will be experienced either in this life or the next. Contrary to popular notions of reincarnation, the Hindu wishes to be released from the constant cycle of death and rebirth in which he or she experiences the effects of karma. Release from the cycle takes a person beyond all the limitations of self to identify with the sacred unity of Brahman, the essence of the universe.

There are various paths that lead to release, and they are often combined with devotionalism. These include meditation, philosophical study, different kinds of yoga and asceticism. Often, people will choose to study spiritual discipline with a guru, a person who is spiritually enlightened. Hindus are generally accepting of other religious traditions because all are seen as paths to release and Brahman. There are different levels of spiritual development and each individual must follow the path that is best suited to him or her.

Islam is a monolithic religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It recognizes Judaism and Christianity as its precursors and honors the same prophets and central figures such as Adam, Abraham and Moses. As do Jews and Christians, Islamic people worship one God, the God of Abraham. In Arabic the word most often used for God is Allah. People who are Islamic are called Muslims.

The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the one who brought the word of Allah to humanity. Muhammad was born in the middle-east in 570 CE (or AD). As he received the word of Allah he developed Islam as a way of life. Eventually the suras, or verses, he received were written down and this divine book is called the Qur’an. All of Islam is based upon the Qur’an. It is considered the final edition of divine books, after the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and Muhammad is considered the final prophet. Muhammad lived his life according to the Qur’an and all of his actions and words as recorded by proven reliable sources are written in the Hadith. Muhammad is looked to as the ideal by Muslims who seek to emulate him in their own lives. Muslim Law, called the Shariah, is based upon the Qur’an and the Hadith.

The central beliefs in Islam are that:
1. There is only one Allah i.e. one God.
2. The prophets were the messengers of Allah and Muhammad was the final prophet. He is "Seal of the Prophets," the last and ultimate authority in the prophetic tradition. (Neither Muhammad nor any of the other prophets are divine since there is only one God.)
3. The Qur’an is the final edition of divine scriptures. It is the ultimate word of Allah.
4. The angels serve and praise Allah. There are four Archangels including Gabriel the highest angelic being. Angels record the good and bad deeds of humans.
5. There will be a day of final judgment when all humans are resurrected and become accountable for their deeds. What we experience in the afterlife will reflect how we have lived in this world and whether or not we have had faith in and been obedient to Allah. For those who have lived justly and mercifully the afterlife will be a garden Paradise. For those who have not it will be a tortuous hell.

There are five basic duties of a Muslim also called the Five Pillars of Islam. They are:

1. To declare that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad, peace be upon him, is His Messenger.
2. To pray five times a day.
3. To fast from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan if one is physically able, abstaining from food, drink, sexual intercourse and smoking.
4. To donate at least two and a half percent of one’s income after basic expenses to the poor.
5. To go on pilgrimage to Mecca once during one’s life if he or she can afford it.

These duties teach a Muslim fellow feeling and to love and care for each other. Peace, harmony and justice are vital in Islam, and these duties help to bring them about. There are two main kinds of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a (or Shi’ite). Sunni Muslims are by far the majority (90%) in the world. Sunni Muslims promote racial harmony as one of the basic messages of Islam.

The history of Judaism is the story of the Hebrew people and their relationship with God. It begins around 4,000 years ago and is recorded in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (which Christians call The Old Testament). The Torah or Pentateuch, also known as The Five Books of Moses, makes up the first part of the Hebrew Bible. It is considered the most sacred section of the scripture. The Hebrew Bible begins with God’s creation of the world and tells the history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve patriarchs who make up the tribes of Israel. It tells of Moses, the Exodus, the creation of Israel and the time of the prophets. It sets down God’s law for the Jewish people beginning with the Ten Commandments, and records the Covenant between God and the Hebrew people.

After the final destruction of the holy center of Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem, in 70 CE (or AD), the Jewish people were dispersed into many lands. However, they continued to be unified through the teachings of the rabbis and traditional practices. Communities were established which flourished but also endured horrible persecution. Anti-Semitism (hatred of Semitic peoples which includes the Jews) was particularly strong in Christian Europe, even while Judaism was accepted in Islamic parts of the world. Centuries of persecution and hatred in Europe reached a climax during World War II with the Holocaust. One third of all Jews were killed. After the war, in 1948, the Nation of Israel was re-established to provide a homeland for the Jewish people.

Judaism recognizes the presence of God in community and also the sanctity of human life. By keeping the Ten Commandments, keeping the Sabbath, observing holy days and festivals, and following dietary practices, the presence of God among the people and the righteousness of the community are actively strengthened. The Sabbath is observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This time is set aside as sacred. Among the most important religious holidays are the High Holy Days which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are a time of spiritual renewal and atonement.

Different types of religious practice have developed in Judaism resulting in branches which hold diverse views on Jewish identity and practice. The four main branches of Judaism today ranging from the most traditional to the most open to change are Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructionist. All types of Judaism are focused on the daily relationship between God and the community. Concern is for the present life of the community and the well-being of the individuals within it. Concern is not focused on an afterlife. Humans are to love God above all else and to live righteously before God in community. In the modern era, many Jews consider themselves secular Jews and do not follow religious laws and practices. However, they strongly identify themselves as part of the Jewish people.

Native American Spirituality
Native American Spirituality is a belief in an all knowing, all powerful Creator whose presence is rooted in the natural world, i.e. Mother Earth, Father Sky, animals, water, fire, and people. Everything is a part of Creation. All is sacred. Creation is an integrated part of all living and non living things. There is an acceptance that all things come together in the right place, right time, with the right elements/people for the right reason. 

Lessons and stories, including the creation story, ceremonies, animal stories, and understanding of the natural order, are passed down through oral traditional from one generation to the next. Native American Spirituality follows the natural order of life and death. There is a high value placed on children, elders, environment, nature, community, and humility . 

There is significant diversity within the Native American people. There are over 550 federally recognized tribes and over 200 non-recognized tribes/organizations in the United States. The Native American population has increased by approximately 26 percent over the past decade as indicated by the 2000 census figures released by the Census Bureau March 12, 2001. Native Spirituality stories and lessons differ from tribe to tribe, but the belief in a Creator rooted in the natural world is central to all.

Other Resources:
The Pluralism Project
Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University

Denominations and Faith Groups in Williamsport, PA*

African Methodist Episcopal
African Methodist Episcopal Zion
American Rescue Workers
Assembly of God
American Baptist
National Baptist
Southern Baptist
Independent Baptist
Brethren in Christ
Christian Church, Disciples
Christian Churches of Christ
Christian and Missionary Alliance
Church of Christ, Scientist
Church of God
Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (Mormon)
Church of the Nazarene
Eastern Orthodox (Orthodox Church in America)
Episcopal Church
Free Methodist
Friends (Quaker)
Jehovah's Witnesses
Pentecostal Assemblies of God
Presbyterian Church in America
Presbyterian Church USA
Presbyterian, Orthodox
Roman Catholic
Salvation Army
Seventh Day Adventist
United Church of Christ
United Methodist

*List courtesy of United Churches of Lycoming County